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How Michelob Ultra served up the most innovative sports experience of 2022


By Awards Analyst, writer

December 6, 2022 | 5 min read

At The Drum Awards for Experience 2022, Unit 9 and FCB New York won in the Event Technology of the Year, Innovative Experience, and Sports or E-Sports Experience categories for their ‘McEnroe vs McEnroe: the world's first real vs virtual tennis match’ entry. Here, we find out more about what went into this successful campaign.

John McEnroe vs John McEnroe

John McEnroe vs... John McEnroe?

The brief

Many of the best sports stars and athletes face major trials and tribulations in their quest to be the best. So as part of Michelob Ultra’s ‘Joy is the Perfect Trophy’ campaign, the brand wanted to deliver a message that everyone could relate to: don’t forget to enjoy the journey. Partnering with tennis legend John McEnroe – known for his intense performances on the court – Michelob wanted to celebrate the major moments of his career, using the power of technology to bring him face-to-face with his iconic past and redefine sports experience in the process.

Unit 9 and FCB New York needed to create a first-of-its-kind sports experience that resonated with audiences both in-person and at home, successfully driving public conversation and views across ESPN’s channels.

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The idea

Unit 9 and FCB New York created the world’s first-ever physical vs virtual tennis match between the real-life John McEnroe and his digital avatars from the past, ambitiously combining a number of technologies and techniques to completely revolutionize the sports-viewing experience.

High-res body scanning, motion capture, past gameplay data, artificial intelligence, cutting-edge MetaHuman digital avatar creation and robotics were all brought together to create fully realistic and historically accurate virtual versions of McEnroe, ready to face off against the real thing across the court.

Using a particle mist screen on a custom-built tennis court enabled the team to display the digital avatars realistically, facing off against the real John McEnroe on the other side of the net.

When the real McEnroe sent the ball over the net, his avatar could respond to the direction and attempt to return, triggering the robot ball cannon arms to move and a new ball to be fired. This ball then shot through the particle mist screen at the precise point in space that corresponds to the avatar racket position from McEnroe’s perspective, thus creating a fully realistic tennis match between one of the sport's most iconic legends and his digital counterparts from the past.

The real John McEnroe played against five avatars in front of a live studio audience with commentary from James Blake and Ashley Brewer, and the matches were also broadcast to the world across ESPN2 and ESPN+.

The results

  • 10 million+ views across ESPN’s channels - that’s more eyeballs than the 2021 NBA finals.
  • Drove public conversation, talked about 30+ countries
  • 95% increase in Michelob Ultra organic search
  • 99% positive social sentiment
  • Covered by 120+ media outlets

This campaign was a winner at The Drum Awards for Experience in 2022. The Drum Awards for Marketing are currently open for entry. Find out how you can enter now.

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